Housing for all – can we thread the needle?

By Sarah Marshall

Skyrocketing prices for buying or renting a home; a decreasing number of owner-occupied dwellings; scant opportunity for people in lower income ranges to live in Amherst; limited land on which to build any kind of housing — what can be done? Should something be done?

In mid-August, Amherst’s Town Council began discussing a proposed Comprehensive Housing Policy.  The draft policy (which you can read here) was developed over two years with the involvement of several Town committees and local housing experts. 

The proposed policy lays out five goals:

  • Promote greater pathways to home-ownership and integrated communities through increased supply of a diversity of housing types;
  • Increase the supply and variety of affordable and market-rate rental housing;
  • Create, update, and maintain safe, secure, and environmentally healthy housing;
  • Address climate sustainability and resiliency of housing stock, location, and construction;
  • Align and leverage municipal funding and other resources to support affordable housing.

The draft policy lays out numerous strategies to make progress towards these goals and describes how to measure progress.  The possible strategies include:

  • Enact zoning changes to permit or encourage lot division, cottages, accessory dwelling units, duplexes and triplexes, or redefining “family” and “unrelated individuals” within the bylaw;
  • Provide incentives for meeting energy efficiency standards in new construction;
  • Waive, reduce, or rebate various fees for construction of affordable housing;
  • Adopt a derelict house bylaw and/or strengthen the rental registration bylaw;
  • Develop funding so that existing housing can be made permanently affordable;
  • Use Town funds to buy private land for affordable housing projects;
  • Encourage UMass to increase on-campus student housing.

Councilors raised technical concerns, such as who would have responsibility for promoting and implementing the policy, whether zoning strategies are effectively endorsed by Council if they are listed as possibilities, and whether sustainability strategies are consistent with the recent report of the Energy and Climate Action Committee.

But much of the Council’s conversation addressed difficult and complex questions such as:

  • How big should Amherst get? Besides changes to the town’s “look,” how might the cost of services grow if the population increases substantially?
  • What are the cost implications to the Town budget of the suggested strategies?
  • The Town has little to no power to require UMass to build housing, so how useful is asking UMass to move more students from market-rate housing onto campus? Should we pressure the state legislature to devote more funds to UMass housing?
  • Most of Amherst’s open space is either owned by colleges and the University, protected conservation land, or too wet to support housing. Can we only add housing by densifying in existing areas?
  • If zoning choices of the past have inadvertently promoted conversion of single-family homes to rental units, what share of blame can be fairly put on UMass?
  • Should we just accept that Amherst is, or will be, affordable only to students and the very well off?

I am on record as favoring changes that increase the density of housing in village centers, consistent with our Master Plan. Many of these can be achieved at little cost to the Town yet would significantly increase our property tax revenue and increase the customer base for our local businesses.

But the goals and strategies regarding affordable housing (broadly defined) present more difficult decisions.  I think it is fair to say that for-profit developers (and property owners) will not deliberately lose money. The more expensive the Town’s requirements for new construction or rental properties, the less likely it is that rents or purchase prices can be held below the desired profit margin, or even cost, and the less likely the housing is to be “affordable.”  Laudable as the goals are of ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, lives in safe, well maintained, energy-efficient construction near public transportation, it seems to me pointless to depend on for-profit developers to build large numbers of such units. We can certainly impose many progressive requirements, so that any housing that is built or renovated meets our high standards, but the high cost may merely drive construction to less-demanding cities and towns, defeating the fundamental aim of a Comprehensive Housing Policy.

Because the great majority of affordable housing units are built and/or operated by non-profits and government agencies, or are poorly maintained private properties, perhaps some goals of the proposed policy would be most directly attained by devoting an increasing proportion of Amherst’s tax dollars to housing built, operated, purchased, subsidized, deed-restricted, or retrofitted by the Town, either on land purchased by the Town or re-purposed Town-owned property.  Two recent examples: the Town has purchased property on Belchertown Road with Community Preservation Act money to offer to a developer for affordable housing, and has declared the old East Street School to be surplus Town property that can also be made available for affordable housing.  But whether voters would support a greatly increased commitment at the ballot box is questionable, in my mind, especially when we want to ramp up spending on other Town priorities, such as climate change mitigation and a community responder program.

I do not know if Amherst’s combination of open space, buildable land, charm, and educational institutions makes it unique, but those factors definitely create enormous challenges to enlarging the spectrum of housing types and price points. Whether we can thread the needle to our satisfaction remains to be seen.

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